As someone who, if somehow forced to choose, would probably pick peanut butter over oxygen, nothing from Barry Estabrook’s disturbing OnEarth expose of the federal Food and Drug Administration’s appalling failure to protect our food supply disturbed me more than this passage:
Following a 2007 salmonella outbreak in which 425 people in 44 states were sickened by peanut butter produced by ConAgra and sold under the Peter Pan and Great Value brands, the FDA intensified its inspection activity at peanut-processing facilities. Unfortunately, the agency missed a plant owned by the Peanut Corporation of America in Blakely, Georgia. It was a deadly omission. In 2008 and 2009, products from that plant sickened 714 people in 46 states and Canada and took the lives of 9. When they did arrive, FDA inspectors found mold on the walls and processing equipment covered in slime.
Investigators for a congressional committee turned up something even more worrisome: internal e-mails indicating that Peanut Corporation’s owner, Stewart Parnell of Lynchburg, Virginia, not only knew about the salmonella at his plant, but ordered products that had tested positive for the bacterium to be shipped. "Turn them loose," Parnell wrote in one message to a plant manager. Results showing contamination were "costing us huge $$$$$." In a rare instance of prosecutorial vigor, the FDA, which lacks authority to file criminal charges on its own, teamed up with the Justice Department to pursue a case in early 2009. Yet three years have passed with no charges being filed. In the meantime, the lawsuit-besieged Peanut Corporation filed for bankruptcy. "I have never seen a clearer case that demanded criminal prosecution," (attorney) William Marler says.
Well, criminal charges have finally been filed. This week a federal court in Georgia unsealed a 76-count indictment that charges Parnell and three other former executives for Peanut Corp. and a related company with covering up information that showed their peanut butter was contaminated with salmonella bacteria.
As NPR reports:
The charges include conspiracy, mail and wire fraud, obstruction of justice, and others related to distributing adulterated or misbranded food.
Federal officials say executives at the company were aware that their products had tested positive for salmonella, but they failed to alert their customers, and also lied about those test results to inspectors from the Food and Drug Administration.
The executives also allegedly falsified documents that stated "that shipments of peanut products were free of pathogens when, in fact, there had been no tests on the products at all or when the laboratory results showed that a sample tested positive for salmonella," according to a Justice Department statement.
Parnell and the other former executives are facing up to 20 years in prison if convicted. Already, Parnell’s attorneys are trying to turn the blame back on the FDA, saying in a statement that federal and state inspectors had visited Peanut Corp.’s George facility before the salmonella outbreak and “made no objections to the testing policies or protocols in place.”
Whatever the outcome, it’s clear from this case -- and the many others documented in Estabrook’s story -- that both food producers and the FDA need to do their jobs better. The U.S. is experiencing an epidemic of food-borne illnesses, with 48 million cases of food poisoning a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, leading to more than 128,000 hospitalizations and more than 3,000 deaths. The FDA has done a terrible job stopping those outbreaks, and corporations that poison their customers can usually expect little more than a warning letter. Criminal prosecution, especially in a case as egregious as the Peanut Corp. one appears to be, is a step in the right direction. Although I often joke that I’d die for a spoonful of peanut butter right about now, I don’t really mean it.